Renate Schinköthe


Giving the right feedback - constructive and goal-oriented

A situation that is familiar to almost everyone: You ask colleagues for feedback on the current project status. A simple question such as "What do you think about it?" can quickly degenerate into a meeting lasting hours, in which only personal preferences and tastes are discussed and in the end you know less than before.

How to prevent this problem was once again brought to my attention last year at UX London. In a half-day workshop, Adam Connor presented methods for obtaining and communicating feedback (in the sense of constructive criticism) in the internal project team as well as in customer coordination in a structured and constructive way. In the workshop we tried out the different methods and practiced in small groups.

Give better feedback through the right motivation

Requesting or giving professional feedback on the current solution is one of the most important aspects of teamwork. However, people often tend to communicate solutions directly instead of naming the problem they see. This behavior can also be observed during user surveys and usability tests. The test persons report how they would do it differently or what color they would like the product to be. During a test, this is the perfect opportunity to question the why, i.e. to find out the real reason. And we should act in the same way when we receive subjective or solution-oriented feedback from colleagues or customers.

The subjective or reaction-based feedback is usually characterized by the initial reaction to a result. This instinctive, emotional reaction happens within seconds and is shaped by personal expectations, values and needs. Furthermore the reaction can be influenced by the expectations of the counterpart.

In contrast, solution-oriented or directional feedback is characterized by an instruction or suggestion. In this type of feedback, the feedback provider tries to adapt the result to his idea of the solution, because you already have an idea in your head.

Both variants are problematic, there:

  • they show the subconscious reaction of the viewer, but this reaction represents the target group in very few cases.
  • they do not convey how successfully the current solution meets the goals of the product

Basically, it is difficult for people not to think directly into problem solutions. Our brain cannot analyze and solve problems simultaneously. Like a switch, we constantly switch between analyzing and creating. Some faster, others less frequently or more slowly. If a participant starts to describe a new idea in a feedback round, everyone reacts differently:

  • one tries to imagine the new proposal.
  • the next one still tries to analyze the current solution.
  • another tries to understand why a new solution was proposed.
  • the next one tries to develop his own solution for a completely different problem he sees.

The challenge in feedback rounds is therefore to coordinate the switch between analyzing and creating for all participants.

Good feedback comes from mutual understanding

When we ask for feedback, we usually expect an assessment from the other party as to how far the project goals will be achieved by the current solution. Therefore it is even more important as a feedback provider to ask yourself in advance:

  • Did you understand everything your colleague presented?
  • What did the colleague want to achieve with this solution and how did he try to achieve this?
  • How effective are the solutions and why are they effective or not?

Therefore, the following four guidelines form a good basic grid for feedback:

  • Do not make any assumptions: Investigate the reasons for the approach.
  • Do not invite yourself: Get in touch with your colleague and ask if it is possible to talk about the current status.
  • Lead the conversation through questions: Show interest in the process and learn about the intentions.
  • Talk about strengths: Giving feedback is not just about addressing things that don't work.

In order to receive constructive feedback, it is important to ensure that all participants have the same basic knowledge of the task and objectives. Furthermore, it must be ensured that everyone talks about the same aspects. Here the following information is useful:

  • Goals: Expected, measurable success of the product, user or business oriented.
  • Guidelines: Statements often formulated as rules that describe the quality and characteristics of the final solution.
  • Personas: User archetypes that describe their average behavior.
  • Scenarios: Short descriptions of the expected behavior of the users when completing a task.

These aspects, together with the problem statement printed on a DIN A4 page, form a great hand-out for all participants in a meeting with customers and create a level playing field.

You have to learn everything first

Giving constructive feedback is, like conception or design, a skill that must be learned. Therefore, it is advantageous to start small and consider who you are giving feedback to for the first time or who you are asking for feedback to for the first time. The following rules can help:

  • Everyone is equal: Regardless of title or hierarchy, everyone is allowed to give feedback equally, since everyone can contribute good ideas and insights.
  • Everyone is a participant: Even if you are not working in the same field of activity, you can still make a valuable contribution. If someone sits in a meeting without actively participating, you should ask them for their opinion, otherwise valuable thoughts may be lost.
  • Do not try to solve problems: This can be very difficult because we humans always tend to want to present a solution to problems immediately. But giving feedback is all about problem analysis!
  • The creative is responsible: The person who developed the solution collects the feedback and insights. Then he should take the time to evaluate them and make decisions. This approach helps to completely think through problem-solving ideas that have been thought through too briefly and to assess their consequences for the overall product.

Methods that facilitate the collection of feedback

My colleagues Maxi and Anja have shown in their last article how creative methods can help in projects to work out and evaluate solutions. Some of these methods are also suitable for coordinating and structuring a feedback meeting.

In order to get a good start, the "flashlight" is a good way to get started, where you ask participants to give feedback. It is also a good idea to open the round with one or two positive statements about the product and a concern. This makes it easier for others to give feedback, since a structure is now known which can be followed. Another possibility is the Six Thinking Hats method, which helps to analyze different perspectives.

Throughout the meeting, it is important to lead the discussion as a facilitator, keep the goals for the meeting in mind, and note insights and issues so that everyone can see them. Active listening and re-formulation are key methods that help the facilitator to create a common understanding and eliminate uncertainties. For difficult participants who do not contribute anything, the only way to help is to address them directly. Participants who only give subjective feedback or start thinking in terms of solutions can be helped to get to the bottom of things like a researcher with the 5 Why Method.

At the end the next steps should be shown and the participants should be thanked. This gives the participants the feeling that their ideas will be noticed and that they are ready to participate constructively in such a meeting again later.

Well then... Up, up, into constructive feedback rounds!

Renate Schinköthe


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